How to be a Karate Master


How to be a Karate Master, the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri.

Today we are going to learn how to be a Karate Master. Now, I know that sounds pretentious, but hear me out.

But more than that, we are going to talk about the process of learning, adapting, and mastering.

So, let's break it down:

Shu - To learn the rules, to obey, to keep intact, to protect

Ha - To break the rules, to let go, to move away

Ri - To make the rules, go beyond, to transcend

Now, this concept of Shu Ha Ri, it's just the process of learning. When you are learning karate, what's the very first thing you do? You learn the basic movements, and you learn the kata. Now, if you learn the kata, that means you are following the movements exactly, precisely the way your teacher taught them.

Now, when it comes to the kata, I think it's also important that you understand the history, the intention behind them. Kata is not an esoteric set of movements. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Every movement in your kata has an exact intended purpose. And if you are learning karate, or if you are teaching it, you go to ask yourself these questions. What does every movement of your kata mean? Because the kata are like an oral history of the art. It's the way that you take the movements, the techniques, the ideas of the karate style, the martial art system, and pass it down to the next generation. That means every kata, the older katas (not the Heian/Pinan katas), like Kushanku (Kanku Sho Kanku Dai), Wanshu (Empi), Nihanchi (Tekki), Passai (Bassai Dai, Bassai Sho), Jion (Jitte, Jiin) should all have effective and practical defensive technique sets for every movement of the kata.

Disclaimer: I exclude the Pinan/Heian kata because those are just derivations of the older kata and are really meant to help children/beginners learn the basics. There are some good bunkai for those forms; I just don't like them conceptually because they water down the art.

Now, we can talk about bunkai, good and bad, all day, and people will disagree on what good and bad might be. My opinion, though, is that as long as you are learning at least one practical, reliable, and useful technique for every movement of the kata, you're doing good.

So learn the rules (Shu), you learn the kata and what every movement of that kata is.

And then what?

Now you start to break the rules (Ha). You say, "Here's this movement in this kata, now let's take that and apply it a little differently," Or "Let's take this set of movements that I saw in another martial art, and let's tweak that to suit our needs, let's play with that and see what we can come up with." And as you do this, you learn. I think it's highly valuable after you begin to learn karate to also study arts like wrestling, judo, jiujitsu, or aikido. These hands-on grappling types of skills will teach you body mechanics, balance, and movement. These concepts are an integral part of old karate that included throws, sweeps, grappling, chokes, and joint locks.

As you tweak the techniques, you will begin to gain a greater understanding of the techniques, which will help you to move into the next stage (Ri).

The concept of Ri means that you are going to make something better. You are going to transcend the techniques you were originally taught.

One of the problems I have with traditional karate is that it is too stagnant. We focus too much on what your master taught you and not enough time asking, "Does this make sense." Self-defense over time will change, and in order for karate to stay relevant, we need to adapt to and evolve with those changes. So, adjust, figure out what makes sense, and apply that. But keep your roots!

(Rant warning, you can probably skip the next paragraph)

Too often, we see so-called grandmasters, who think they need to make up their own style, call it something fancy, and claim it's the best karate that's ever existed. Quite frankly, this doesn't help karate as an art. Just call it karate, keep the old kata and understand that everything you need is already there. Stop adding flippy tricks, flippy kicks, and countless unnecessary kata to bloat the time it takes to get to black belt. Please don't call yourself a master of anything if you've only ever done point sparring, have a potbelly or have awarded yourself a 15th dan black belt. Instead, try putting on a rubber nose and rainbow wig and call yourself a clown because it's about the same thing.

But I digress, let's get back on track...

Shu Ha Ri

Shu Learn the kata, learn the rules, learn the movements.

Ha Embellish on them, break the rules, learn what works really well.

Ri Apply that to the way you teach. Keep the roots, keep the kata, old, old kata, but teach the movements with practical defenses.

And if you do that, your karate will mean something, you will be a total badass, and you will be a Karate Master.


Just an addendum to that. Let's talk about sparring.

There are good ways to teach beginners about sparring. Things like point sparring are a good place to start. But move beyond that, graduate, grow beyond that. If you are a black belt, that means you should be able to spar with competency. Please include timed rounds, include grappling, include throws, include joint locks and submissions.